Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Fighting to keep innocent men behind bars

Over in Kentucky we have the latest example of a prosecutor forgetting that seeking justice, not obtaining convictions, is his ethical duty.

Keith Hardin and Jeffrey Clark were convicted of the murder of Rhonda Sue Warford in 1995 in a case that involved allegations of satanic worship and animal sacrifice. Ms. Warford was 19 years old when she complained that an old man had followed and harassed her. Three days later she was found dead, with 11 stab wounds.

Mr. Hardin and Mr. Clark contested their convictions for 21 years - finally winning a reprieve in 2016.

After DNA testing - which prosecutors fought against - proved that a hair found at the scene matched neither Mr. Hardin nor Mr. Clark and that blood found on a washcloth belonged to to Mr. Hardin and no one else.

After Judge Bruce Butler's ruling, Assistant State Attorney General Perry Ryan decided that he wasn't going to let the pair walk away. He refiled murder charges and added charges of perjury and kidnapping.

Last month, Judge Butler ruled that Mr. Ryan had brought the new charges up without merit and that they were filed in a spirit of vindictiveness. The judge called out Mr. Ryan by name and stated that the new charges were filed solely because Mr. Hardin and Mr. Clark had the nerve to contest their convictions.
“This is clear and actual vindictive prosecutorial action." -- Judge Bruce Butler
Our criminal (in)justice system is deeply flawed. Trials aren't conducted to determine what happened and who did it, they are a contest between competing narratives that may or may not have any tangible connection to the truth. Prosecutors treat a jury verdict of guilty as concrete proof that their theory of the case was correct - an acquittal is viewed as a miscarriage of justice.

But juries aren't perfect and verdicts aren't, and shouldn't be, sacrosanct. A jury isn't given all the information related to an incident. Evidence on both sides is excluded for various reasons. Evidence isn't tested by independent labs. Testimony from eyewitnesses is held up as proof even though there is mounting evidence that eyewitness testimony is unreliable due to a number of factors.

The point is that just because a jury comes back with a guilty verdict, that doesn't, in and of itself, make it correct. Sometimes it's because exculpatory evidence has been intentionally withheld. Sometimes it's because crime labs don't have the time, money or manpower to conduct tests on evidence. Sometimes it's because juries don't understand what beyond a reasonable doubt means. And sometimes it's because the trial strategy of the defense went all pear-shaped.

The murder charge against Mr. Hardin and Mr. Clark should be dismissed because the evidence supporting the prior convictions has been discredited. But that would mean the police and prosecutors would have to admit that they went after the wrong men. They would have to admit that for 21 years, two innocent men sat in prison while the real killer (or killers) went free. Such an admission might give rise to a little better understanding of beyond a reasonable doubt for area jurors.

Mr. Ryan has fought justice in this case for years because he doesn't want to have to go out and put in the work to determine who really killed Ms. Warford. It's much easier to take the transcript of the previous case and go right back down the line than it is to conduct an investigation more than 20 years after the crime.

Maybe had the police done their job better back in 1995 two innocent men wouldn't have spent 21 years behind bars for a crime they didn't commit. Maybe the person responsible for the murder would have been there, instead.

1 comment:

Lee said...

"We prosecutors are here to win, Justice is God's problem" - Sebastian Stark (played by James Woods)